The pregame chatter mostly centered around Netherlands manager Andries Jonker’s quotes in the Matchday -1 press conference. It certainly had USWNT followers getting a little tight in the seat. In full:
“The intensity in European football really has grown the last couple of years, as well as the fitness,” he said, per ESPN. “In the past, the American women were a lot fitter than the rest of the world, but I really think those days are over. If you look at the Champions League nowadays, you see the same level of intensity. So the big question is now, what is left of their superiority? Let’s see about that.”
The thing is, he’s right. And the first 45 minutes of the US-Netherlands match couldn’t have proved him more so. Luckily for the Yanks, games are 90 minutes long.
The US has always thrived on its athleticism. Their technical skills have dropped behind the European powers, and that’s been the case for some time. It very well might have been the case in 2019. The US was just able to gut its way out of every jam. They got out on the counter, they scored on set pieces, they muscled their way in defense. One cannot have watched, say, Spain or Japan or Germany in this tournament, or England in the Euros last summer, and think that the US can knock the ball around better than any of them. It’s not their way, and it hasn’t been.
For the first 45, the Dutch gave the US a prime lesson in what that looks like, with the added benefit of some tactical planning from Vlatko Andonovski that looked like it was drawn up by someone locked in a panic room with only CCTV for the past month.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Alexei Lalas had it spot on at halftime. It is hardly a secret that the Dutch play in a 3-5-2, and Lieke Martens often drops off that front two to add a fourth in central midfield. And still Andonovski sent out his charges to press man-to-man, the three US forwards against the three Dutch defenders, the two #8s (Lindsey Horan and Savannah Demelo) pressing up against the Dutch double pivot of Jill Roord and Jackie Groenen. Here’s what that looked like:
Except there were a host of problems with that. One, the three Dutch centerbacks are all very comfortable on the ball and only too happy to dance around that press when under pressure. Which scared the US off of going hellbent for leather in their press, which then left the Dutch defenders far too much time to pick passes to break their lines. Thirdly, the US didn’t adjust to that or to Martens dropping off the front line to either side of Andi Sullivan in deep midfield, with Danielle van de Donk on the other side, leaving Sullivan with two people to mark. It’s a task you’d only ask the 2019 version of Julie Ertz to perform. The US don’t have 2019 Julie Ertz. Which led to a lot of this:
This is in the lead-up to the Dutch goal. Martens gets the ball behind Demelo but in front of Sullivan, but you can see van de Donk completely unmarked at the top of the center circle. The Dutch had either option. It doesn’t help that Sullivan isn’t all that quick and her anticipation isn’t the highest either, and Martens completely dances her into the ground to get the Dutch into the US box where they would eventually score.
This was the theme of the first half. Savannah Demelo looked every bit the player getting only her second cap. Sullivan was drowning with what she was asked, and Julie Ertz was hesitant to step out of defense to cover these gaps, probably having something to do with rarely playing defense in the past few years.
This was the fear for the US heading into this tournament, that their midfield isn’t up to the level of their attack. Andonovsky probably thought that the US would create enough turnovers to launch quick counters and get Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman isolated on wide centerbacks, but a team needs the ball to do that. The Dutch didn’t give them it.
The thing about the US’s athletic advantage, is that even if it didn’t bear fruit early or in the middle of the game, the US will also outlast teams through the 90. It could be argued that the game hinged when Stefanie van der Gragt had to be subbed at halftime from the center of the Dutch defense. Aniek Nouwen was far more jittery with the ball, causing them to pull their wingbacks farther back than they’d been. Which pulled the US fullbacks farther forward, which ate the cat that ate the rat, and so on. Bringing on Rose Lavelle and her greater level of activity was also a boon, forcing her teammates to get more in the face of their opponents on the press. Ertz was also more willing to follow Martens into midfield and deny her space. And once Martens was moved to the #9 position, she kind of disappeared from the game because it’s not really what she is.
It might not have been an avalanche of chances that followed, but there were enough corners that Horan was able to get loose to pocket one and get the US a point.
It’s always important to remember that the US has enough star power to never be too deep into trouble. Even when things are going so tactically wrong, Smith or Rodman or Horan or Morgan can get loose and provide a moment. They only need a moment or two per match to win.
Still, it’s a little hard to ignore how the US got swamped in midfield in the first half and wonder what Spain or Japan, whom the US will likely see in the last eight, would do with such an advantage. The Dutch were on their third-choice striker in Katja Snoeijs, who really didn’t provide much. Had Lineth Beerensteyn been fit, she at least would have been a threat to get in behind. Vivianne Miedema would have been an all-around threat. You can bet that Jennifer Hermoso or Mina Tanaka will be asking a lot more questions.
Still, the US found a way. Now the only danger is if the Dutch were to truly thwack Vietnam and the US puts in kind of a ho-hum win against the Portuguese, which isn’t likely. Should the US win, the Dutch would have to outdo them by winning by three more goals than the US do. Can happen, but probably won’t, and the US would rather not have to deal with Sweden so soon.
We knew what the problems were before the World Cup. They’re even clearer now. The US still has the firepower to overcome it. It’s just more of a highwire act than it’s been.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Feslgate and on Bluesky @felsgate.bsky.social